Taking Sustainability Out of Sustainable Marketing

tree piles of coins with small trees / csr / good governance / green business / business ethics
tree piles of coins with small trees / csr / good governance / green business / business ethics

For all the entrepreneurial effort, time and investment dedicated to the growth of a sustainable consumer product market, there's an enormous consumer bias against sustainable and responsibly manufactured products, even if consumers aren't willing to admit that out loud.

People are predisposed to see "green" products and services as being more expensive and less effective. That perception is somewhat justified, with many eco-companies that are just too focused on sustainability while neglecting quality, efficacy and cost. Don't get me wrong, the sustainability of a product is hugely important, but if an item isn't price competitive and of high enough quality, no one will want to buy it and all the sustainability claims in the world won't change that fact.

Although I would like to think/hope otherwise, there is still not a majority percentage of the population that actively chooses socially responsible products and services over the more traditional competitors. Consumers may have the expressed desire and willingness to "buy green" - see: every study ever published on the habits of green consumers - but a "Green-Gap" still exists, as these lofty inspirations don't play out at the register and in actual consumption habits. So how do we turn those well-intended survey responses into actual purchases?

Definitely not by using guilt. The surest path to resistance is to attempt to shame people into action. This is not a sustainable marketing strategy (pun intended). Furthermore, if you guilt a consumer into making a more responsible choice, they will only do so as long as they feel like they are "being watched", quickly enough they'll go back to their regular purchasing choices.

People also have a fear of separating from the consumption flock. They don't want to be constantly reminded to pay attention to issues they don't fully understand and more importantly do not directly impact their lives. They want to be blissfully unaware of the impact of convenience driven, individually wrapped, single served lifestyle.

Brand loyalty also cannot be dismissed, as the familiarity of a product can have a calcifying effect on people's willingness to consider new options, no matter how sustainable.

At the risk of sounding overly cynical, dying polar bears and honeybees, though massively important to our global health, is not a way to get the average consumer's business. Now before the eco-activists break out their solar-powered torches and come for my head, I say all this to build an argument that eco-entrepreneurs need to refocus how they position and market their products.

So what can you do as a green company to effectively compete with the other, often much larger and less-responsible competitors? Without the burden of the extra care (and costs) necessary to create a product responsibly, traditional manufacturers are free to produce on a mass scale, freeing a much larger portion of their budgets to dedicate to marketing.

Overcoming the Green Gap is simple - in theory - but perhaps not so simply done. Forget about your product or service being 'green' for a minute and focus on quality and/or price. Preferably both.

Now that might seem like basic advice, but it's not always intuitive to those in the green space -- who rightfully view their unique market differentiation as sustainability. And depending on what you make, price parity is a potentially difficult proposition. But if you want to have your products even considered by the vast majority of the population, price competitiveness is an absolute must.
Green cleaning leader, Method, provides a great example of this being a successful model.

Though slightly more expensive than a standard cleaner, their high quality and small price premium have made them a massive mainstream success at Target and other major retailers. If you look at much Method's marketing, especially at the point of sale, you'll see sustainability de-emphasized and a focus on design and quality instead.

Not known to settle, method then introduced a refill pack they has driven the cost down while also reducing packaging weight. They've managed a nifty trifecta here: they've made their high-quality product less expensive, reduced their packaging costs, and given shoppers a way to feel good about their green purchases. A few years back one of their more successful marketing campaigns, "Clean Happy", was based entirely around their product quality, not sustainability.

It might be difficult to let go of your sustainability, oh intrepid eco-entrepreneur, after all creating a better, more responsible product or service is why you started your business in the first place! But try to let the experience, design, efficacy, quality or affordability of product be what leads your messaging-- and the green aspects become cherry on top, a nice bonus for your consumers.
I am often asked - as a green marketer - where I see the industry going in the next 5-10 years and how sustainable products can become more accepted in the mainstream. The more I think about it, the answer becomes more obvious:

Green products will have really succeeded, when consumers are buying them without even knowing they choose the more sustainable option! When consumers are buying our products because they are better designed, more effective and maybe even more affordable, only then we will have achieved mainstream staying power. I want consumer to buy a sustainable product and not realize until they get home that they've made the responsible choice. Then we are really beginning to win the battle.